A new water rates proposal will be considered at a hearing on Tuesday, October 15 (8:00 p.m. at the Community Center). This latest proposal would leave most of the existing block rates unchanged. However, the blocks themselves would be narrowed, so that as household water usage increases, higher rates would take effect sooner. The second rate block, which is 0.3¢ per gallon higher than the first rate block, would take effect after 4,500 gallons of quarterly usage instead of 7,500 gallons. The third rate block, which is 0.2¢ per gallon higher than the second rate block, would take effect after 9,000 gallons instead of 15,000 gallons. The fourth rate block would remain the same, taking effect at 22,500 gallons. Only the third summertime block rate would change, increasing from the current 0.9¢ per gallon up to 1.0¢ per gallon. The fixed fee of $15 per quarter would remain unchanged.
The good news is that this proposal would preserve the strong incentive to conserve water inherent in Sharon's current ascending block water usage rates. Since 1995, water usage in Sharon has declined by 20% (about 100 million gallons per year) even as the population has increased by 6%. This improvement is saving about $30,000 per year in the cost of electricity to pump the wells and almost $40,000 per year in the cost of treatment chemicals. It has also allowed the town to live within the capacity of its six local wells, and avoid the multi-million-dollar cost of importing supplementary water from MWRA.
The bad news is that the proposed rates would only increase revenues to about $2.8 million per year. While that is considerably more than current revenues, it is still short of the $3.3 million needed to cover the annual cost of operating the system, including the infrastructure maintenance costs identified in the Water Master Plan. As a result, the Sharon Water Department has used up its cash reserves, and had to borrow about $800,000 last year to make ends meet.
With 18 miles of cast iron water mains in Sharon over 100 years old, and 40 miles of aging asbestos-cement water mains, leakage in the system is hard to manage (see attached graph of unaccounted-for water). It's a shame to pump and treat millions of gallons of water, only to have it leak back into the ground without being used. Setting water rates high enough to keep pace with infrastructure maintenance would reduce the frequency and cost of leak repairs, as well as the risk of a water emergency.
An ounce of prevention or a pound of cure?
The issue of a filtration plant at Well #6, which is only used in summer when the other wells cannot keep up with demand, highlights Sharon's water supply options. The water from Well #6 is tinted with dissolved iron and manganese, which stains laundry, dishes and plumbing fixtures. Sharon can either trim its summertime water use enough to avoid having to pump Well #6, or spend millions of dollars to build and operate a new filtration plant for Well #6.
With water use in Sharon trending gradually downwards, all we have to do is stay the course with our award-winning conservation program, including conservation-oriented water rates, in order to dodge this multi-million-dollar bullet. Avoiding this extra cost would be especially beneficial considering that Sharon is already struggling to raise enough revenue to keep up with the full cost of operating and maintaining its existing water supply infrastructure. Shall we build a multi-million-dollar filtration plant that we might not need? Sharon should learn from Brockton's expensive mistake–see: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2013/05/28/brockton-desalination-plant/.
Well #6 is not Sharon’s only problematic well. Well #2 has more nitrates than the other wells, and they are trending gradually upward. A 10% reduction in total well pumping would make it possible to avoid pumping both of these wells, and improve Sharon's overall drinking water quality (see attached graph).
Raising water usage rates enough to cover the full cost of operating and maintaining the current water supply system would provide more incentive to conserve, and accelerate the trend toward better water use efficiency in Sharon. Adding 0.2¢ per gallon to each summertime rate block would encourage everyone to conserve water in summer when it matters the most, and increase water bill revenues by about $450,000. Adding a fifth rate block and charging an extra 0.4¢ per gallon for usage over 30,000 gallons per quarter would encourage Sharon's heaviest water users to try harder to conserve, and add another $100,000 or so in revenues, for a total revenue increase of $550,000. That would be enough to cover the full cost of supplying the community with water according to the Water Master Plan. Surplus revenues, if any, would provide a buffer to offset future inflation and revenue shrinkage associated with further improvement in the town's water use efficiency.
Please plan to attend the water rates hearing on Tuesday, October 15 at the Community Center. The hearing will begin at 8:00 p.m.
Paul Lauenstein, 781-784-2986